Sunday, 26 September 2021

In conversation with Hazel Prior, author of the no. 1 bestseller 'Away with the Penguins'

 To read the interview simply click on this link:

Monday, 26 October 2020

David Abbott's haunting and beautifully constructed first and last novel deserves a wider readership.

David Abbott is regarded as one of the finest advertising copywriters of his generation. As a young graduate back in the 80s, I remember the thrill of being offered a student placement at his agency Abbott Mead Vickers, along with my then creative partner. We were in our final year at art school and had set our sights on a career as a creative team in one of London’s creative advertising agencies. Luckily for us, one of AMV’s senior art directors had graduated from our college (Maidstone College of Art), so it only took a letter from one of our tutors to this former student to secure our two-week placement.

On arriving at the allotted hour, we were ushered up to the creative floor of a recently refurbished building that had that distinctive new building smell. Everything was grey and black, which was the height of chic back in the late 80s. In fairness, it would still look sophisticated today. We had our own sizeable office for two weeks. But the greatest disappointment to befall us was that the great man himself was on holiday and would not return until we had departed. So there would be no chance to contrive an impromptu meeting with him in the company lift of a morning.

Abbott had cemented his reputation for writing memorable press ads for the likes of Volvo, Sainsbury’s, The Economist and Chivas Regal, to name but a few. But he was equally at home writing TV commercials, and his famous ‘J R Hartley’ TV commercial has gone down in advertising folklore as one of the UK’s best-loved commercials.

This said, he will always be remembered for witty headlines; and cogent, eloquent and perfectly structured copy. I remember one of his very long headlines for Chivas Regal that fuelled a lively argument at college. Some of us felt it was truly heartfelt while others found it overly sentimental and cloying. The press ad ran on Father’s Day and read as follows:

Because I’ve known you all my life.

Because a red Rudge bicycle once made me the happiest boy on the street.

Because you let me play cricket on the lawn.

Because you used to dance around the kitchen with a tea-towel round your waist.

Because your cheque book was always busy on my behalf.

Because our house was always full of books and laughter.

Because of countless Saturday mornings you gave up to watch a small boy play rugby.

Because you never expected too much of me or let me get away with too little.

Because of all the nights you sat working at your desk while I lay sleeping in my bed.

Because you never embarrassed me by talking about the birds and the bees.

Because I know there’s a faded newspaper clipping in your wallet about my scholarship.

Because you always made me polish the heels of my shoes as brightly as the toes.

Because you’ve remembered my birthday 38 times out of 38.

Because you still hug me when we meet.

Because you still buy my mother flowers.

Because you’ve more than your fair share of grey hairs and I know who helped put them there.

Because you’re a marvellous grandfather.

Because you made my wife feel one of the family.

Because you wanted to go to McDonalds the last time I bought you lunch.

Because you’ve always been there when I’ve needed you.  

Because you let me make my own mistakes and never once said. “I told you so.”

Because you still pretend you only need glasses for reading.

Because I don’t say thank you as often as I should.

Because it’s Father’s Day. 

Because if you don’t deserve Chivas Regal, who does?

Abbott later admitted that the ad was, in fact, a love letter to his own father. Whether you like it or not (I happen to like it), it’s a lovely example of Abbott's perceptiveness and his ability to tap into the way we humans think and feel. And it’s this emotive and powerful line of reasoning that imbues all his copy, whether he’s writing about crumple zones on Scandinavian cars or the health benefits of a Liga baby rusk. 

When in 1998, he announced his retirement from the agency he founded in order to take up a new career as an author, none of us gasped in surprise. Here was a man who was already writing the most exquisite prose, albeit in a truncated form. And plenty of other copywriters had taken the plunge before him. Copywriters who certainly hadn’t received the kind of recognition Abbott had. There had been Fay Wheldon ( ‘Go to work on an egg’). There had been Peter Mayle (‘Nice one Cyril’ for Wonderloaf bread). And there had been Salman Rushdie (who readily admits to penning ‘naughty but nice’ for fresh cream cakes).

Admittedly, it took some while to complete his first work of fiction, but in 2010 Abbott’s debut novel ‘The Upright Piano Player’ finally hit the shelves. And quite some novel it is. It was clearly a labour of love as every line has been so well-considered and beautifully honed. Lines like this: Designer gowns from a former era, lovingly preserved in polythene, hang uneasily on bodies that have had no such luck. The book is peppered with such lines, yet the narrative is brisk and not the least bit laboured. And, of course, there’s that sharp perceptiveness about human nature and the little observations that lift the writing to another level. We also get a real feeling for the characters themselves through Abbott’s sharp ear for dialogue.  

The story itself is an incredibly sad one and is structured like a Kurt Vonnegut novel starting at the end. But in all other respects, it is as far apart from a Vonnegut novel as you could possibly get. Many reviewers have compared the writing to Ian McEwan, and it’s a fair comparison. What is abundantly clear is that ‘The Upright Piano Player’ is an accomplished novel that can stand head and shoulders with anything written in the English language. As a debut novel, it's remarkable.

The story’s protagonist, one Henry Cage is a perfectly affable character on the surface. He has enjoyed a successful career as the founder of his own management consultancy business. But on retirement, it becomes clear that Cage’s personal life is anything but perfect. As the novel progresses, Abbott allows us to peek into Cage’s family dynamics and the fracturing of relationships, which could so easily have been averted. Added into the mix is a string of random incidents that have truly devastating consequences and are well beyond Cage’s control. Together the sequence of events makes for a tragedy of epic proportions and demonstrates the fragility of life. But don’t be put off. The narrative is utterly compelling, and you really do want to spend time in Henry Cage’s company. He is sharp, witty and likeable, if a bit obstinate and set in his ways. The closing line to the novel is utterly heartbreaking, as we know from the very first page how this story ends. And that’s another aspect that I think works so well with this novel. The way it has been structured is really clever. We know from page one how it ends but we don’t quite know how it gets there. But when we do finally get there and everything has been unravelled, the emotional punch of the very last page is enormous and gut-wrenching because we know that the last page isn’t actually the last page.

Having retired from advertising myself and written a couple of self-published novels, I have only just got round to reading ‘The Upright Piano Player’. But I am baffled by the fact that this fine book has received so few reviews on Amazon - no more than a paltry 38 ratings in ten years. My own self-published scribblings have notched up twice as many ratings in ten months. But I’d be the first to admit that my writing pales in comparison. So why on earth isn’t anyone reading this fine book that has been published, I might add, by a mainstream publisher (Quercus)? Am I and those 38 other reviewers on Amazon the only people to rate ‘The Upright Piano Player’ as a terrific read? Surely not. 

I speak up for David Abbott’s novel not simply because I believe it to be an extraordinarily lyrical and haunting book, but because David Abbott cannot speak up for himself. He very sadly passed away rather suddenly and unexpectedly in 2014. He was one of the very few advertising men whose obituary made it into the national newspapers as well as the BBC news. This said, his debut novel only appeared as a foot-note among the reams of newsprint devoted to his contribution to British creative advertising. And yet this novel is undoubtedly his crowning achievement. The Guardian rightly described it as ‘a beautifully constructed debut.’ The saddest thing about ‘The Upright Piano Player’ is that it’s Abbott’s first and last foray into the world of literary fiction. We shan’t lay eyes on any other gems from this hugely gifted and overlooked author.  

Friday, 21 August 2020

In conversation about advertising, copywriting and writing fiction

 Alex Pearl talks to Kenneth Muyingo about writing for advertising agencies as a copywriter and writing fiction, with special reference to his latest novel, the thriller The Chair Man that is set in London in 2005.


Saturday, 27 June 2020

Homage to Pete and Dud

Dud: This Coronavirus thing is a right pain.

Pete: You're not wrong there. I was only thinking the other day
what a right pain in the derriere - if you’ll excuse my French -
what a right pain in the derriere this wretched thing has become.

Dud: What gets me is they don’t even tell us why they call it

Pete: I can tell you why. It’s because they are completely in the
dark about it. So they’ve had to call it something wondrous and
ethereal to mask their total ignorance.

Dud: Wondrous and ethereal?

Pete: Yes. Wondrous and ethereal… Of course, they had to have
a bit of a brain storm to come up with the name. And then as if
by some divine providence, some bright spark would have come
up with the idea of calling it... ‘Coronavirus.’

Dud: On account of it being wondrous and ethereal?

Pete: On account of it being wondrous and ethereal.

Dud: So where does the name actually come from, Pete?

Pete: Well, there you’ve got me. But if I were a gambling man,
which of course I’m not… I would put my money on the name
itself being of Latin derivation.

Dud: Latin derivation?

Pete: Yes, Latin derivation… You see there’s nothing quite as
wondrous and ethereal as a bit of  Latin derivation... I mean to
say, this Prime Minister loves his Latin.

Dud: I thought he loved the ladies.

Pete: Aside from loving the ladies, he also has a bit of a thing
about Latin.

Dud: You mean a little bit of Latin on the side?

Pete: Yes - a bit of Latin on the side... He loves his Latin. Can’t
get enough of the Latin… Only the other day he came out with a
lovely little gem. He can’t help himself. He’s always getting the

Dud: He’s known for his urges isn’t he?

Pete: Yes Dud, he is known for his urges. He has his fair share of

Dud: So what was this lovely little gem?

Pete: The lovely little gem in question was ‘Veni, vidi vici.’

Dud: Not being conversant with Latin, would you mind

Pete: I will even go as far as elucidating… Roughly translated
veni, vidi, vici  means I came, I saw, and did all kinds of

Dud: I see.

Pete: Course, he’s not the only one to be partial to the Latin. The
queen likes her Latin, too.

Dud: Does she?

Pete: She’s very partial to a bit of Latin is Her Highness. When
she had that fire at Windsor castle. You remember that don’t you?

Dud: Oh yes. Dreadful business.

Pete: Indeed… Well, she didn’t describe that year as being
thoroughly nasty.

Dud: Didn’t she?

Pete: No. She called it ‘Annus horribilis.’

Dud: Annus horribilis? Would you mind soliciting again?

Pete: Certainly... It’s Latin. In other words, an extremely wondrous
and ethereal way of saying that her year was in fact a bit of a

Dud: Bit of a bummer?

Pete: Yes. You see the thing about Latin is that whatever you say,
it will will always sound wondrous and ethereal.

Dud: Seems a bit funny to me wanting to speak a language
nobody understands.

Pete: Well, if you can speak in a way that very few people can
actually understand, you are very well qualified to be Prime

Dud: Why’s that then?

Pete: Well, just think about it. If you were Prime Minister, which,
thank goodness you aren’t, and you were asked a very difficult
question, which you didn’t know the answer to, what would you

Dud: I suppose I’d be stumped for words.

Pete: Well you wouldn’t be stumped for words when you can
answer in Latin. Because by answering in Latin, you’ll be giving an
answer that no one will understand…

Dud: And I suppose you’d be confusing everyone in an ethereal
and wondrous way.

Pete: You would indeed be confusing everyone in an ethereal and
wondrous way… And that in a rather round-about way in answer
to your original question, is why this wretched virus is named

Dud: It’s all Greek to me Pete.

Pete: Well actually Dud you’re quite right. It is I believe also Greek
in derivation. Of course, the ancient Greeks were a very clever
bunch. Very clever indeed.

Dud: Interesting that you say that... Because there’s a very
ancient Greek gentleman who used to have a kebab shop near me
until he was closed down by health and safety. That wasn’t so
clever was it Pete?

Pete: Well you have to remember that some extremely ancient
Greeks do unfortunately suffer from dementia.

Dud: Dementia?

Pete: Yes. Dementia. The funny thing about dementia - and
there’s not a lot that’s funny about dementia - but the funny thing
is that dementia is actually Latin you know… (FADE)

© Alex Pearl 2020 All rights reserved

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

A talk about John Constable and his place in the history of landscpe painting.


Kenwood House Volunteer, Alex Pearl, gives an online Spotlight Talk on John Constable and his place in the history of landscape painting, with particular reference to the 1821 oil sketch commonly known as 'Hampstead Heath, with Pond and Bathers' one of the paintings in the great art collection at Kenwood House, London. John Constable (1776 – 1837) was born in Suffolk and lived in Hampstead from 1827. His paintings brought new life to the genre of landscape painting and constructed a particular image of the English countryside. Alex Pearl looks at some of Constable’s landscapes and cloud studies and explains how he took the practice of painting outdoors to new heights. Introduction and fade out music is by Carl Maria von Weber, Opus 79 published in 1821; Weber sought to bring Romantic music to a freer form, where feeling took precedence over form. Produced by Friends of Kenwood With thanks to English Heritage Trust

Thursday, 19 March 2020

My thriller, 'The Chair Man' is now FREE

My thriller, 'The Chair Man' is now FREE to download thanks to Smashwords. You can download your FREE copy at:

The book was published at the beginning of the year by Fizgig Press and is beginning to garner some very positive reviews.
Here is what Graham Smith wrote last month:

"'The Chair Man' would make an excellent book club choice, stimulating discussion and lively argument. It contains masses of detailed information, selection from which can justify a wide range of interpretations. Many readers will admire Hollinghurst. He is a good father, particularly to his daughter Natasha, who considers him "the best frigging dad in the world", and he possesses "in spades" the "primal need to feel and protect your own flesh and blood." His son Ben thinks he "could always see the good in others." But that is exactly how many terrorists are remembered by almost all who knew and loved them.
"The nearest I ever got to a "terrorist incident" was in East London, when I heard the IRA bomb go off in Docklands in 1996. I cannot predict my reaction were I to be caught up personally in such events, but I hope I would not go the same way as Michael Hollinghurst, the central figure in this entertaining and elaborately-plotted novel. It is a gripping thriller that repays careful and close reading (and I will certainly read it again)."
Graham Smith 2020

The book is currently averaging 4.4 stars out of 5 on Goodreads and 4.7 out of 5 on 
You can download your FREE copy at:

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

It's arguably one of the most exciting and emotive products for advertisers to sell. But when was the last time you saw a great ad about money?

I've been an advertising copywriter for more years than I'd comfortably own up to, and a good proportion of that time - perhaps 25% - has been devoted to the area of financial services. It's an arena known, not for its creativity, so much as its lack of it. It's one of those few sectors that for some curious reason, makes many copywriters go all weak at the knees at the prospect of taking a brief. Yet, we copywriters are always looking for angles on products and services that will enhance the customer’s life in some small way. And money, unlike so many other things in life, really can change our lives. Products like pensions and life assurance, for instance, offer the creative team incredibly powerful and emotive propositions to play with. After all, a yoghurt or chocolate bar can only do so much to make us feel good. A pension, on the other hand, will quite literally affect the quality of our lives for a good 20 years or more. And a life policy will pay for our wives, partners and kids to have a comfortable life, even if we’re not around to enjoy it with them. These are powerful, deeply profound and wholly tangible product benefits that should, one would have thought, lead to powerful and creative advertising campaigns. And yet there are so few memorable financial campaigns one can think of.

Banks have traditionally had sizeable marketing budgets with which to flog their wares, but the commercial that seems to be gracing our screens more than ever at the moment is a banal beach scene in which we see horses galloping through the waves choreographed to equally bland musak. The only attempt at any messaging is conveyed at the end with the words ‘By your side.’ This form of advertising is so devoid of any idea or meaning that you have to wonder what it is that Lloyds Bank is trying to achieve here, other than bringing their logo to life, and having hordes of mindless people adulating it for no apparent reason.

Barclays admittedly has been known to knock out the occasional good commercial. Their current online security commercial isn’t a bad effort. But you have to go back 18 years to see the famous ‘Big’ commercial featuring Anthony Hopkins, which delivered a simple chest-beating message with a certain panache and entirely excusable chutzpah.

The only other decent bank advertising I can recall was HSBC’s ‘The world’s local bank’campaign, which demonstrated the bank’s understanding of global markets with cleverly scripted vignettes of Western businessmen failing to understand the customs of foreign clients when abroad.

In the area of insurance and investment, one struggles even harder to think of good work. Back in the 80s a couple of good friends created a nice TV commercial for Legal & General about the very few investments that hadn't worked out for the company. One involved an oil rig in Mukluk, Alaska that drilled water, and carried the immortal line 'not much luck in Mukluk.' The end line was 'Only 99% certain of getting it right.' It was a brave commercial that gave L&G a human face and arguably made the company stand out from the dross.

Then, of course, there’s the Albany Life press campaign; easily the best press advertising campaign for a life company ever created. The irony is that Albany Life wasn’t a brilliant life assurance company despite its beautifully written and art directed press ads, and the company no longer exists.

Other notable financial advertising campaigns have included Egg, Commercial Union, More Than’s car driving dog, an intelligent press campaign for M&G and a series of well written press ads for Nationwide Building Society back in the ‘80s.

It represents such a tiny drop in a vast ocean of bland communications. So why is this? Personally, I think it’s almost certainly down to the inherent character of these organisations’ marketing departments that tend to err on the side of caution; and let's face it, most ads that do that are infinitely forgettable. From my own experience, most companies in the area of financial services take themselves far too seriously; refuse to let their advertising agencies convey messages that are in any way negative; and view humour as being wholly flippant and something that will denigrate the company’s brand values. There has also been a trend since the late 90s for financial services to pay heed to their design agencies more attentively than their advertsing agencies, which I have never really understood. But I suppose if I were to invest vast sums in a comprehensive set of design guidelines, I'd feel compelled to adhere to these guidelines rigidly and at all costs. The problem is, of course, that such guidelines are so compehensive that they tread on the toes of the advertising agencies by stipulating the brand's tone of voice.

At the end of the day, humour and negativity are, in my view, two of the most valuable weapons in the creative team’s armoury. Take them away and it’s possible to see how we end up with asinine commercials featuring galloping horses and straplines that say absolutely nothing.

Alex Pearl is the owner of Alex Pearl Ltd